Copy Editing the Great American Novel

The Bellingham, Wa., Herald has an interesting casual Q&A with Dave Cole, a freelance editor who works on a lot of high-end literary fiction, including novels like Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s forthcoming Nobody Move, and Aravind Adiga‘s The White Tiger. Cole appears to be more of a copy editor than the Robert Gottlieb type the interviewer implies, but he still plays a valuable role. As Andrea Barrett points out, “In addition to tracking down and checking an awful lot of obscure details and spellings and place names, he also did that admirable thing of not fixing what wasn’t broken.”

Cole discusses the hardest part of the gig:

My greatest challenge is to determine what the author’s rules are. You can’t impose grammatical rules on manuscripts when an author deliberately breaks rules (for effect). I have to learn the structure well enough to call attention to it when an author strays. I have to be diplomatic, because you want an author to hear what you’re saying.

A particularly difficult task in the case of Tree of Smoke, I’d imagine. Cole isn’t mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, but then, attentive copy editors rarely get the credit they deserve.

March Through the South

Next month marks the launch of the Southern Literary Trail, which honors 18 towns in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi that were home to some of the country’s best-loved writers. There’ll be readings on the grounds of William Faulkner‘s house; performances at the Margaret Mitchell house and museum; screenings of films based on the works of Carson McCullers; a whole bunch of events related to the centennial of Eudora Welty‘s birth; and more. The very idea of it was enough to get Harper Lee out of doors for a bit recently.

What If We Give It Away?

The London Independent has a feature on Stona Fitch, novelist, Scruffy the Cat multi-instrumentalist, and founder of the Concord, Massachusetts-based Concord Free Press, which gives away copies of limited-edition novels under the condition that you give money to a charity of your choosing, and then pass the book along. It’s no way to make a living, but at least it’s a more noble method of free distribution than that of Wild Animus.

Fitch, who’s published his 2001 novel, Senseless, with Soho Press, says he’s gotten some pushback about the enterprise from some in the publishing industry:

“It’s a threatening idea to publishers. A couple have said it’s the death of the business and I should stop immediately,” Fitch laughs. A tiny not-for-profit organisation is not about to topple the bestseller list or reduce J K Rowling to begging on the streets. But it is trying to effect a change in attitude, something reflected in the website’s strapline: “Free their books and their minds will follow”.

“I’m not saying every book should be free, but the inmates have the keys to the asylum now,” he says. “Publishing books is not hard, it’s making money from publishing that’s really hard. We’re blessedly relieved of the burden of profitability.”

Interesting phrase, “burden of profitability.” To be more precise, the burden is to be profitable to a degree that the corporate owners of the mainstream publishing industry demand. Much like the newspaper industry, book publishers have shifted from a model that was long comfortable with grocery-store profit margins to one that was demanding double-digit profit percentages year over year, as Gideon Lewis-Kraus points out in one of the few useful details in what is an overall silly piece in Harper’s about the Frankfurt Book Fair. (The piece is chiefly concerned with skewering the vanity of agents and publishing honchos—as if such vanity were unique to the publishing industry, as if Morgan Entrekin would be a better publisher if he were a better dancer, dancing to better music at a better party.) So if Fitch wants to make some of his efforts available for free, that may be a better value proposition for him in the long run—he’s building more goodwill with an audience than he could with a large publisher. Everybody in the publishing industry is now facing an era of creative destruction, so clearly some new models are in order.

But Fitch’s efforts, however noble and potentially valuable, don’t address how publishers and authors make money right now, while everybody’s getting vigorously Schumpetered. I’ll be curious to hear how successful indie publisher Two Dollar Radio will be with its subscription model, where $50 gets you at least five of the books it’ll put out this year. I don’t pay very close attention to the publishing industry—watching the sausage-making processes ruined me as a music fan—but it seems that whatever efficiencies a publisher gains from such a model (a better sense of number of readers and anticipated income) is lashed to a stronger need to better brand your company (“Why do I want every book you publish?”) and retooling a list to be more subscriber-friendly could come at the expense of worthy writers who suddenly don’t “fit” the brand. In the effort to avoid the burden of profitability, such systems can become as corporate as the ones indies are trying to avoid.

Links: Government Work

Propaganda alert:, a Web site of the State Department, is publishing essays from the latest edition of its eJournal USA, which this month focuses on multicultural aspects of American literature. Among those included are Ha Jin (whose excellent essay collection The Writer as Migrant is excerpted), Marie Arana, Gerald Early, and Akhil Sharma.

Responding the Stuart Everscelebration of American English in the Guardian, D.G. Myers has a few thoughts on how the language shifts depending on whether you’re in the South or whether you’re Philip Roth.

Harriet E. Wilson, author of what’s presumed to be the first novel by an African American woman, 1859’s Our Nig, was recently learned to be a hair-product entrepreneur.

Wyatt Mason follows up on the Joseph O’Neill firmament kerfuffle not once but twice.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Ian McEwan studies how John Updike invented Rabbit Angstrom’s middle-class nobility: “Harry’s education extends no further than high school, his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, and yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure, and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, “and not chop them down to what you think is the right size.”

Lastly, if your reading choices are largely dictated by the number of awards a book has pulled in, this should come in handy.

God Bless (Cliche-Ridden) America

Could folks living in the U.K. please make up their mind about how they feel about American writers? Just the other day, Joseph O’Neill was all but dismissing American fiction as a spent force, but this morning the Guardian‘s Stuart Evers writes about realizing that most of his shelf space is filled with books by Yanks:

American fiction fascinates because of the country it seeks to depict: its vastness, its extremes of landscape and temperatures, its hundreds of races, its gulfs between wealth and poverty. When permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl called American fiction “insular” he was right: when you’ve got so many stories to tell at home, why would you look abroad?

Fair enough. But as much as I support Evers’ enthusiasm, I get the feeling he’s got a wrong, or at least narrow, idea of what American writing is. To show how much he prefers American English over British English, he comes up with a representative sentence from each:

Mary fills up at the gas station, then drives her Chevy Impala to Roy’s Diner.

Mary fills up at the petrol station, then drives her Nissan Micra to Roy’s Rolls.

Sure, the British sentence is a little drab, but the American one is a cavalcade of cliches. Gas stations, Chevys, and diners might be nice to work with if it’s 1932 and your name is James M. Cain, but Evers’ sentence doesn’t prove that American English is somehow better—only that we pulled off noir a lot better than his countrymen did. The notion that American stories are all about the open road and some troublesome dame is a deeply ingrained one; foreigners believe it the same way they believe that Chicago is an interesting city because it’s where Michael Jordan played basketball. Reducing the country’s fictional product to a handful of notions risks marginalizing it—and validating O’Neill’s argument. Not that either writer has the power to wreck an entire country’s literary output. Perhaps it’s enough to be thankful that the British are still concerned about it.

Joseph O’Neill, Careful With His Words

The Telegraph has a wide-ranging interview with Netherland author Joseph O’Neill, in which he expounds on his disappointment with not receiving a Man Booker nomination (“I can honestly say I wasn’t that disappointed although the sales would have been nice”), and delivers a slight dig against his semi-peers in American fiction (the “cupboard is slightly bare when it comes to American writers under the age of 65.”). He also explains why it took him so long to write the novel:

One of the reasons that Netherland took seven years to write is that its author spent ages poring and re-poring over each sentence. In a previous interview, he said he was unsure about the book until he came up with the phrase “invertebrate time”, which, he said, even Shakespeare would have used. “Oh for God’s sake, did I say that?” He looks mortified as perhaps he should. “But you do take pleasure from the word combinations, and that was probably one of them. You know what I was driving at there – the mixing of the metaphors … it’s very Elizabethan.”

But perhaps O’Neill wasn’t quite as careful with those words as he says. Harper’s critic Wyatt Mason brings up an interesting exchange he had with a novelist about Netherland regarding the finery of the book’s prose. Mason’s friend calls shenanigans on this passage:

Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel.

A discussion of the definition and proper usage of “firmament” ensues, and it’s worth reading the whole thing instead of summarizing it. Mason writes that he’ll pick up the conversation again today; it should make for an interesting close reading, something that doesn’t happen often enough online.

Skating By

Buried in the brief online bio of Bret Anthony Johnson, head of Harvard’s creative writing department, is an interesting factoid: He’s be a “skateboarder for almost twenty years.” More info is hard to come by, but the writer of the collection Corpus Christi and Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer (mentioned here last February) fills out the story with McSweeney’s, locating a few connections between skate culture and fiction writing. Authors and skaters are both prone to faceplants, and the main trick is getting up again:

Q: How has skateboarding influenced your writing?

BAJ: The two have always complemented each other. There are so few things that seem as difficult to me. The biggest link between skateboarding and writing is the discipline. Like here. (Gestures to the park below.) This kid is trying this trick and he hasn’t made it and he’s going to keep trying. It’s like when we go to work on a sentence. You have to log the hours, take the hits, suffer the pain and discouragement, then come back at it.

You’re going to have to jumble this around and make it sound smart.

Q: Don’t worry. I’m a professional.